Incarnation

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment, 
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth 
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, 
because he was of the house and family of David, 
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child, 
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, 
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields 
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them 
and the glory of the Lord shone around them, 
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy 
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David 
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: 
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes 
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Luke 2:1-14

Nativity, Giotto Di Bondone, 1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

Nativity, Giotto Di Bondone, 1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

The art of Giotto Di Bondone lies between the flat Byzantine medieval style and the revolutionary art of the Renaissance and he is often called the Father of Renaissance art. He boldly experimented with naturalism, modeling, and perspective; he painted blue skies instead of gold and used other color more freely; he included naturalistic scenery; and he used shading to indicate volume. Perhaps most importantly, Giotto often showed the intense emotions of the moment in the faces he painted.

Giotto painted a scene of the Nativity in the Scrovegni Chapel, also known as the Arena Chapel, in Padua, in a fresco cycle regarded as his masterpiece. The layout in this scene is similar to Byzantine icons of the nativity but the artist has given it his own charm. We see the Holy Family within a lean-to set against a rocky hillside, with Mary, lying on a makeshift bed on a rock ledge, being handed the swaddled infant Jesus by an attendant. We are immediately drawn to the gaze shared between Mary and Jesus, as they stare intently at each other. Joseph is often depicted as seen here, with his head on his hand as if weary from their long journey. An angel announces the birth to the shepherds at right, while more angels fly above, looking up to heaven with their hands held in praise.

Notice the flaking of the blue paint on Mary’s garment and the sky. The patron and owner of this chapel, Scrovegni, insisted that in some areas Giotto overpaint with blue to highlight the extravagance of the chapel, since the blue is a very costly pigment made of lapis lazuli. Unfortunately, though, the technique used, secco or dry fresco, rather than true fresco that bonds with the wet plaster, has led to the paint flaking away over time.

The ox and the ass shown at left are not included in the biblical text, but they are seen in our earliest depictions of the Nativity, such as this 4th century Roman sarcophagus from Milan.

 

Detail from the "Sarcofago di Stilicone" ("Stilicho's sarcophagus") ca 4th c., Sant'Ambrogio Basilica, Milan, Italy

Detail from the “Sarcofago di Stilicone” (“Stilicho’s sarcophagus”) ca 4th c., Sant’Ambrogio Basilica, Milan, Italy

 

Nativity, Giotto, 1311-20, fresco San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy

Nativity, Giotto, 1311-20, fresco
San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy

Giotto is thought by many scholars to have also painted the Nativity scene above for the fresco cycle in the church of Saint Francis in Assisi. We see three scenes side by side that are parts of a progressive narrative. The center foreground shows the newborn Jesus being swaddled after bathing while Joseph looks on from the left, weary or thoughtful. Mary lies on her makeshift bed holding the swaddled infant, upon whom golden beams of light come down from above. At the right, the angel announces the birth of the savior to shepherds, and we have the requisite animals in attendance. More angels above and below indicate that heaven has broken into the earthly realm to celebrate this miraculous event, the birth of God as man.

Though I was first inclined to attribute this work to Giotto, after studying it and comparing it with his Scrovegni Chapel paintings, I’ve come to agree with those who argue against a Giotto attribution. The figures lack the emotional intensity we see in the first Nativity scene; the angels are arrayed quite statically, with none of the lively variety of the other painting; the modeling and scenery seem rather flat. If this was actually painted by Giotto himself after the Arena Chapel, surely he would have developed and refined his technique even further. What do you think?

Regardless of artist, though, in both paintings there is that gaze between Mary and Jesus. In the Arena Chapel image, Mary is receiving her baby into her arms for the first time. How great must her awe have been, knowing that the mystery of God made flesh was there in her loving hands, held against her adoring breast!? Imagine the overwhelming love that swells in her heart as she sees him gazing back at her!

I invite you now to imagine yourself in this scene. Who are you?

  • Are you Mary, staring adoringly at the Savior of the world, this tiny and helpless babe in your arms?
  • Are you Joseph, weary and detached?
  • Are you a shepherd, just hearing the Good News and trying to grasp what it means?
  • Perhaps you’re an angel, proclaiming the Good News for all to hear!
  • Or are you the baby, being held, nursed, and gazed upon with love by your mother Mary?

Choose one and sit with it for a few minutes. Let the experience penetrate deeply so that you can relate to Jesus in a meaningful and personal way. Allow your heart and mind to become immersed in the overwhelming mystery of the Incarnation.

Glory to God in the highest! May there be peace on earth and goodwill among men.

Merry Christmas.

Advertisements

The Song of Zechariah

 

Zechariah his father, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
for he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hand of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:67-79

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

Zechariah’s Song 

by M. Louise Holert 

Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1:78,79.

The miracle, significance and implications of John’s birth are brilliantly presented in this tender scene. The miracle of John’s birth is indicated by the elderly Elizabeth – who gave birth “in her old age” – being served in bed by an attendant as the elderly Zechariah, on the left side of the painting, addresses his freshly bathed son.

Murillo captures the moment when Zechariah prophesies to his newborn son, foretelling his mission and message: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins . . .” The entire text of Zechariah’s Song can be found in Luke 1:68-79.

The painting reflects a biblical worldview, the predominant European worldview prior to the Enlightenment. At the top of the painting cherubs joyfully observe the miraculous event of John’s birth. Murillo unites heaven and earth in this tender scene, reminding us that John “was a man sent from God” (John 1:6).

John has just had his first bath, foreshadowing his mission as the Baptizer. The bath signifies baptism, the spiritual cleansing that will result as people respond to John’s message of repentance for their sins. The white towels, representing purity, are plentiful and central in the painting.

The scope of the painting calls our attention to the key event in the love story of salvation history – the Incarnation. John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the forerunner of the Messiah. He prepares the way for the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). To fully appreciate the significance of John it is important to know the prophecy of Malachi 4:5, “See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”

Murillo’s generous use of red has symbolic significance. As red is the church’s colour for martyred saints, Murillo’s use is most likely in connection with John’s martyrdom at the hand of Herod. By symbolically referring to John’s death in this painting of his birth, Murillo also reminds the viewers of the proximity between John’s birth and death and their own.

The dog on the chair in the right-hand corner of the painting represents faithfulness. It is most likely a symbol of John’s faithfulness to his calling as a prophet, which culminated in his martyrdom. The red tablecloth behind the dog reminds us of this.

Zechariah’s song is a helpful model to expand and enrich our own practice of prayer and praise. We might have expected Zechariah’s prophecy to be all about his son, but he begins his song by praising God for his redemption. He briefly addresses his son and prophesies about his future as “a prophet of the Most High” who will “prepare the way” for the Lord. Zechariah concludes his song acknowledging God’s tender mercy “by which the rising sun” has “come to us from heaven . . . to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

*******

Bartolomé-Esteban MurilloThe Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, oil on canvas, 145 x 185 cm. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena,CA, USA. Image used by permission.

Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) was the last great painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He created his first successful works – eleven paintings for a Seville convent – around 1645, which led to many commissions. Murillo mainly devoted himself to religious subjects. His models for his large devotional altarpieces, depicting biblical scenes, were often local peasants. In his early career Murillo was deeply influenced by Franciso de Zurbaran, from whom he learned the expressive effect of  light and shade. Another very significant influence on Murillo was the Italian painter Federico Barocci (1526-1612). Murillo, whose art is always gentle and tender, admired Barocci for the pleasing softness of his style.

 

This essay is from the Artway website.  Visit the Frick Collection for a 6-minute video of curator Margaret Iacono discussing this wonderful painting.

The Visitation

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:39-45

 

The Visitation, Mariotto Alberti, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Visitation,
Mariotto Alberti, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Mariotto Alberti’s painting of the Visitation, is considered to be the masterpiece of a relatively minor Renaissance artist. In this work we see the harmony and realism, luminous colors, volumetric modelling of the figures, and architectural perspective of the High Renaissance.  In Giorgio Vasari’s  Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1550, he wrote of the artist:

Mariotto was a most restless person and carnal in the affairs of love and apt to the art of living, and, taking a dislike to the studies and brain-wracking necessary to painting, being also often stung by the tongues of other painters, as is their way, he resolved to give himself to a less laborious and more jovial profession, and so opened the most lovely hostelry outside the Porta San Gallo, and at the sign of the Dragon at the Ponte Vecchioa tavern and inn. This life he led for many months, saying that he had taken up an art that was without muscles, foreshortening or perspective and, better still, without faultfinding, and that the art that he had given up imitated flesh and blood, but this one created flesh and blood; in this if you had good wine you heard yourself praised, but in that every day you were blamed. But at last the low life became an annoyance to him, and, filled with remorse, he returned to painting.

 

The Visitation, ca. 1310, Anonymous German, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Visitation, ca. 1310, Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, German,
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York

This delightful sculpture, less than two feet tall, comes from the Met:

“This representation of Mary and Elizabeth’s joyous meeting comes from the Dominican convent of Katharinenthal, in the Lake Constance region of present-day Switzerland. Carved of walnut, with the original paint and gilding almost completely preserved, the figures of Mary and Elizabeth are each inset with crystal-covered cavities through which images of their infants may originally have been seen. The representation of the Visitation, incorporating images of the unborn Christ and John the Baptist, is found with some frequency in late medieval works from German-speaking lands.”

 

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life, Dieric Bouts (Flemish), Ca. 1445, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life,
Dieric Bouts (Flemish),
Ca. 1445,
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Dieric Bouts is one of my favorite artists of the Northern Renaissance. This polyptych, a four-part altarpiece, shows the Annunciation, Visitation, Adoration of Angels, and the Adoration of the Magi.

The architectural frames of the panels are based on Rogier Van der Weyden’s Miraflores Triptych in Berlin; it evokes the entrance to a Gothic portico, and alludes to the New Law that is brought about with the birth of Christ.

The biblical passages in the archivolts strengthen this idea:

  • in the first panel, showing the Annunciation, the framing arch is decorated with the story of Adam and Eve;
  • in the central panel, the arches of the Visitation and the Nativity show scenes from the Passion of Christ;
  • in the Epiphany, the arc is decorated with episodes which followed the Resurrection, alluding to the universality of Christianity.
Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life Dieric Bouts (Flemish) Ca. 1445 Museo del Prado, Madrid

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life
Dieric Bouts (Flemish)
Ca. 1445
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Van der Weyden’s influence is clearest in the Visitation, but Bouts also draws on the art of Van Eyck in his concern for light and color, while his interest in landscape denotes  the influence of his native Holland. Bouts never saw the Holy Land but he is known for including landscapes of his native countryside in his works, as we see here.

In the Visitation, note the age difference between the two women, with Mary radiantly youthful and Elizabeth wrinkled with age. I love the way they tenderly touch each others’ pregnant belly, such a loving and intimate gesture.

That gesture helped me make a connection with the story that I hadn’t experienced before. Imagine yourself in the scene and that you are touching the Virgin Mary’s pregnant belly; feel the baby inside her move and kick. Imagine your startled joy, just as John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb!  This encounter makes Elizabeth sing out her praise; what sort of praise is breaking forth from you?

Giving Thanks

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful to you, dear Readers. May your life be filled with abundance and grace and may your gratitude to God be overflowing.

As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten persons with leprosy met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
“Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said,
“Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.”

Luke 17:11-19

 

codexaureus_cleansing_of_the_ten_lepers-1024x521.jpg

Cleansing of the ten lepers, c. 1035-1040, Codex Aureus Epternacensis

 

The Codex Aureus of Echternach(Codex aureus Epternacensis) is an 11th-century illuminated Gospel Book, created in the approximate period 1030-1050, with a re-used front cover from around the 980s. It is now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany.

The manuscript contains the Vulgate versions of the four gospels plus prefatory matter including the Eusebian canon tables, and is a major example of Ottonian illumination, though the manuscript, as opposed to the cover, probably falls just outside the end of rule by the Ottonian dynasty. It was produced at the Abbey of Echternach under the direction of Abbot Humbert.

The manuscript has 136 folios which measure 446 mm by 310 mm. It is one of the most lavishly illuminated Ottonian manuscripts. It contains over 60 decorative pages including 16 full page miniatures, 9 full page initials, 5 evangelist portraits, 10 decorated pages of canon tables, and 16 half-page initials. In addition there are 503 smaller initials, and pages painted to resemble textiles. The entire text is written in gold ink.

Visit Wikipedia for more on Codex Aureus.

 

I liked this simple reflection on the gospel passage that I found from the Boston Catholic Journal:

“We are familiar with the story. It can be summarized in a sentence: Jesus heals ten lepers and only one comes back to say, “Thank You.”

Deceptively simple, yes?

Very clearly, it is a story about ingratitude.

It is also, however, a story about obsession. We are so obsessed with the gift that we are forgetful of the Giver. We are overwhelmed with our good fortune and so utterly absorbed in it, obsessed with it, that we have forgotten not only the Giver — but our own genuine poverty apart from Him.

We do not see the Giver for the gift.

It is an odd permutation: the Giver is God. The gift is from God. And then the gift itself is deflected from God — becoming a good greater than God.

The problem is that the gift is, well … a gift.

It is not ours.

It is His!

Our ingratitude is, sadly, quite common. What is uncommon is our obsession, our susceptibility to utter self-absorption — something that is both striking and revealing:

Our capacity for happiness apart from God is only revealed when we are given something — and ourunhappiness apart from God when we are deprived of it.

And we are blind to both.

But take heart. Jesus also healed the blind …”